"A Bronze Fonz? A Revealing Tussle Over Public Art in Milwaukee," by Dave Steele
(originally posted on americancity.org)
We all want great public art in our cities. But we rarely seem to get it.
Art is a transaction between artist and viewer, the interplay of the artist's vision and the viewer's perception; in the realm of public art, this delicate transaction is often thrown off by the usual Public Art Process, which usually entails an "arts board" charged with codifying and enforcing public tastes. The result is often art that tries to be all things to all people, and ends up being nothing to no one.
For every great work of public art, a Picasso in Daley Plaza (which, incidentally, was panned when it was first unveiled), there are countless monstrosities like the huge vertical stack of faux footballs standing outside Camp Randall stadium in Madison, Wis.
The sorry state of so much public art begs the question: "Who decides what is "good?" And why did they get to decide? Is there room for public art that functions as decoration, or entertainment?
Every cityscape in America is dotted with public art that doesn't "say" much: the ubiquitous statues of famous politicians. Milwaukee pays homage to Lincoln, Washington and Martin Luther King Jr., but also Gandhi, Hank Aaron, Frederick von Stueben, Johann Goethe, Cashmir Pulaski and three unnamed ironworkers.
This summer, a new name will be added to Milwaukee's illustrious roster of statuary: Arthur Fonzarelli, most commonly known as "the Fonz."
When Downtown Milwaukee announced that it would soon be home to a privately funded statue honoring the Coolest Person Ever - far cooler than the Bob Newhart statue in Chicago or the Mary Tyler Moore statue in Minneapolis - the local arts community had a fit. They fretted about what the statue would "say," what message it would convey about our city. One prominent local gallery owner, complaining that the Fonz statue would rehash old stereotypes of the city as a beer-and-brats, Laver ne-and -Shirley, Lenny-and-Squiggy kind of town, threatened to close his gallery if the statue was approved.
The director of the Milwaukee Art Museum even got involved, insisting that the statue not reside at its intended spot, a prominent downtown intersection which is slated for a major "legitimate" public art installation. From the looks of the artist selected for this upcoming "non-Fonz" installation, this piece might indeed turn out to be one of those public art pieces that works. The siting of the Fonz statue was therefore moved, as a compromise, to a spot a little more off the beaten path, where tourists who want to bask in its Cool presence will have to spend a little time trying to find it.
What will the Fonzie statue "say"? There are those who think it will say that Milwaukee is the kind of town that is so deluded as …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Ideas: Briefs. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: The Next American City. Issue: 19 Publication date: Summer 2008. Page number: 17+. © The Next American City, Inc. Summer 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.